Aspen Institute names Dan Porterfield as president and CEO

Dan Porterfield said he was riding an “inspiring wave of goodwill” for most of Thursday after he learned the Aspen Institute’s board of trustees unanimously tapped him as the think tank’s next CEO and president.

Following the Institute’s morning announcement that he would take the reins of what his predecessor, Walter Isaacson, called the “best job in the world,” Porterfield had been deluged with emails, tweets and Facebook posts commending him for his newest position. As the Institute’s CEO and president, Porterfield will lead an organization whose mission “is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.”

“Our country needs to come together across our supposed divisions, to find our common identity as citizens of American democracy,” Porterfield said in a telephone interview. “I believe Aspen (Institute) is one of the best places to facilitate national renewal and have a healing dialogue. I don’t think Aspen can do that alone, of course, but we can bring people together.”

Porterfield, who has been president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, since 2011, will take the Institute post June 1.

Until then, Isaacson will remain CEO of the nonprofit that was primarily founded in 1949 by Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke as the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies. Isaacson, a journalist and biographer who joined the Institute in 2003, also will join Tulane University’s faculty as a history professor in January.

While Porterfield doesn’t boast the star power of Isaacson, his academic work has been lauded by peers and others, chiefly because of his efforts to make higher education more accessible to talented ,lower-income students.

The White House touted him as one of the “Champions of Change for College Opportunity” in 2016. According to the Obama White House’s website, “Under his leadership, Franklin & Marshall has developed a distinctive student talent strategy built upon a significant increase in their need-based financial aid budget. Through his work, Franklin & Marshall has seen record application numbers and an increase in the academic profile, diversity, and selectivity of incoming classes. In addition, lower-income and first-generation students at F&M consistently achieve the same average GPA as the student body as a whole and maintaining higher retention and graduation rates.”

Washington Monthly also named him one of the “Sixteen Most Innovative People in Higher Education” because of his “ambitious Next Generation Initiative, a multipronged effort to boost Franklin & Marshall’s socioeconomic, racial and geographic diversity.”

Porterfield also helped found the American Talent Initiative, a program supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ithaka S+R and the Aspen Institute, which now has 87 public and private colleges and universities. The program provides a means for talented, lower-income students to receive a higher education.

A search committee contacted Porterfield about the opening, he said, with discussions gaining steam in the last six to eight weeks.

“I cannot wait to come out to Aspen this spring … and get around and meet other people,” he said. Porterfield was a panelist here during the 2016 Ideas Festival. He said he and his wife enjoyed the surroundings and the people they met.

Porterfield said he sees similarities between the Institute and schools of higher education — from “intellectual integrity” to the “power and value of fact” — and hopes to bring that home.

“I want to find ways to introduce more colleges, more universities, and more high school students and even more middle school students” to the Institute’s programming, he said. “Just as we would want our young students to read newspapers, we also want young people going to the Ideas Festival.”

Held every summer in Aspen since 2005, the Ideas Festival is the brainchild of Isaacson and has attracted a smorgasbord of speakers ranging from Bill Clinton to Paul Ryan. Porterfield said his plans are to build on that foundation.

“I look forward to working with Kitty Boone (vice president, Public Programs for the Institute and executive director of Aspen Ideas Festival) and the rest of the staff to develop outstanding programming to make it smart, relevant, fun and important, and hopefully easily shared with the larger Aspen community,” he said.

Prior to his tenure at F&M, Porterfield was senior vice president for strategic development at Georgetown University.

Before joining Georgetown in 1997, Porterfield served as a senior aide to then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala. He earned bachelor’s degrees from Georgetown and Oxford and his Ph.D at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and was also awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities. He is a native of Baltimore, Maryland, and is married to Karen A. Herrling. They have three children.


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